A critic at the Austin American-Statesman exaggerated in jest when he said Allison Moorer already makes nearly every female singer in Nashville sound as though they have emphysema. He got his point across, though. Moorer’s debut album, Alabama Song, heralds the arrival of a major singing talent. The stylish redhead has got the goods to compete with the hottest new female voices; add her name to the ranks of Lee Ann Womack, Sara Evans and Heather Myles.
Unfortunately, talent alone doesn’t guarantee recognition in today’s crowded country market. Having powerhouse vocalist Shelby Lynne for an older sister doesn’t assure exposure, either. Lucky for Moorer, performing an entire song in a pivotal scene in a Robert Redford film does the trick.
Redford heard one song, asked to meet her, and then made Moorer and her music a centerpiece of his film, The Horse Whisperer. Moorer made an auspicious debut wrapping her smoky alto around one of her own songs during a barn dance scene featuring Redford and co-star Kristen Scott-Thomas.
The singer — who was raised in the small Alabama community of Frankville, just north of Mobile — hadn’t even signed her record contract with MCA when label exec Tony Brown told her about having a small part in the movie. “I had gone into the studio to cut some demos for Tony just before he was approached about supervising the film’s soundtrack,” Moorer explains. “They wanted an Americana-flavored album, one that was very country & western sounding. He didn’t tell anybody he was going to do this–he didn’t say anything about me–but he added my demo recording of “Call My Name”; to a Joe Ely tape he submitted. He just put “Call My Name” right after the Joe Ely song on the tape, thinking, well, maybe, they’ll hear it if they let the tape run. And they did.
“They called Tony up and said, ’That Joe Ely song is great. Now, who’s the girl?’ In the meantime, my publisher had sent them a recording of “A Soft Place To Fall.” They ended up using that song because it better suited the scene in the movie.”
In the space of five minutes she found out she had a record deal and that she was going to make a brief on-screen appearance in a blockbuster film. She soon learned that Redford would direct her music video for the tender, emotional “A Soft Place To Fall,” which is reprised on Alabama Song.
“It hit me all at once,” Moorer says. “What do you do when you’re put in that kind of situation? You just do it, and you try to be as un-goofy as possible.”
Moorer did more than hold her own with George Strait, The Mavericks, Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams and others on the film’s soundtrack; her song was the one that had everyone talking. But talk surrounding the newcomer actually began before her Hollywood involvement.
After taking her last exam at the University of South Alabama, instead of waiting to pick up her degree at graduation, she packed her car and headed for Nashville. After arriving in Music City, she worked as a background singer for her sister Shelby Lynne. Tragedy had struck the siblings a decade earlier when the girls’ father shot his wife during an argument and then turned the gun on himself. Shelby, 17 at the time, was left with the task of raising her younger sister. Moorer doesn’t discuss their troubled upbringing much, at least in interviews, figuring Shelby’s past accounts to the music press should suffice.
In fact, Moorer doesn’t discuss her sister much at all during interviews. Shelby is not mentioned even once in Allison’s two-page artist bio. To MCA’s credit, the label is selling Allison on her own musical abilities rather than having her ride her sister’s coattails.
“It’s just not that important,” Moorer maintains. “I learned about the business while living with her, and I feel fortunate that I didn’t come into it on my own totally green. However, it really doesn’t have anything to do with me musically. It’s just one of those interesting trivia facts for people. We grew up totally immersed in music, and the two of us used to sing together because our family was very musical. But as far as styles go, we couldn’t be more opposite.”
Moorer decided to step out of her sister’s shadow and pursue a career as a lead singer when she began writing songs about four years ago. Her songwriting efforts are paying off. In addition to her tunes paving the way for Alabama Song, Trisha Yearwood cut Moorer’s “Bring Me All Your Lovin'” for her latest album. Buzz surrounding the artist-songwriter escalated in the industry when she sang at concerts honoring her songwriting friend, the late Walter Hyatt. As a member of Uncle Walt’s Band and as a solo artist, Hyatt attracted a cult following that included Lyle Lovett before Hyatt died in the 1996 Valujet crash in the Florida Everglades. Moorer sang Hyatt’s melancholy “Tell Me Baby” at star-studded benefits for his family at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and Austin’s Paramount Theater, as well as on a special segment of Austin City Limits.
“Tell Me Baby” is included on Alabama Song, making it the only song on her 11-track debut which she did not have a hand in writing (seven were co-written with her husband, Butch Primm). “Unfortunately, I didn’t know Walter for very long,” Moorer says regretfully. “We met about a year before he died. The short time I knew him he totally impressed me as a musician, songwriter, singer and person. He was one of those incredible people that everybody loved. Heidi, his widow, asked me to sing “Tell Me Baby” at the tribute to him at the Ryman. I used to sing harmony with him on that song when I attended his Nashville club shows. One reason we put “Tell Me Baby” on the album is because I want people to know about Walter. Besides, it’s a great song.”
Her association with Hyatt’s music, coupled with her ability to retain the best of country’s traditions while keeping the music sounding current and fresh, has given Moorer credibility in alternative country circles. Like Dwight Yoakam, The Mavericks and few other major-label acts, Moorer has achieved her aim of “reflecting the spirit of country music” in a way that has captured the ears of both contemporary and traditional country audiences.
“I just tried to make an honest album,” Moorer says, sizing up the situation. “I don’t consider myself alternative country or mainstream country. I just do what I do and let other people decide what genre they want to call it.”